Thomas Pynchon’s obsession with the Herero genocide, and its slow recognition in Germany.


“I know enough tribes in Africa. What they have in common is that they all just yield to violence. To exercise this violence with terror, and even with cruelty, was and is my policy.” Lothar Von Trotha

The plight of the Hereros of Namibia is an obsession and ever-present theme of the author Thomas Pynchon’s work, and for myself and many others it introduced a bleak chapter of colonial history. Despite this attention, the castration, torture and medical experimentation of the South-West African group – sadly not exaggerated in Pynchon’s fiction – were not recognised as part of an official genocide in Germany until 2004, and a case for reparations remains ignored to this day.

In 2001 a family of Hereros who trace their lineage back to the lucky 15,000 who survived the genocide of 65,000 of their ethnic group failed in a $2 billion lawsuit against the state of Germany and Deutsche Bank, the institution that laundered the colonial plunder. 14 years later, Germany’s Parliamentary Speaker Norbert Lammert admitted that his country’s actions in Namibia constituted genocide, but calls for reparations were quickly shunted. They also returned a batch of Herero skulls used for various exercises of pseudoscientific racial theory in the 20th century before sitting idle in museums across Germany.

These may seem like baby steps, but as recently as 1994 Chancellor Helmut Kohl refused to meet with or even acknowledge any of the 250,000-strong community on an official and fairly comprehensive visit to Namibia.

Hereros in the Pynchon canon

Pynchon introduced the plight of the Herero in V, his hallucinogenic first novel. Chapter 9 is set in German South West Africa 20 years after General Lothar von Trotha issued his ‘Vernichtungs Befehl’, whereby the German forces were ordered to ‘exterminate systematically every Herero man, woman and child they could find’. Like a vile prophet, the plantation-owner Foppl speaks nostalgically of the general and threatens the rebels that ‘General von Trotha will have to come back and punish you all’, demanding that they ‘love me as your parent, because I am von Trotha’s arm, and the agent of his will’.

In Gravity’s Rainbow, Hereros return not as victims, but as the Schwarzkommando: the Nazis’ most talented engineers who were kidnapped from Africa during the 1904 genocide. Led by the half-Russian and half Herero Enzian – who is also being hunted by his Russian Intelligence Officer half-brother Tchitcherine – they become key players in the scramble to retrieve their masterpiece V-2 rocket as WWII ends and the Cold War begins.

The Schwarzkommando are portrayed as an eerie cult who find meaning in the rocket and crave the death it will bring to their troubled people. Focused purely on recapturing Rocket 00000 and the extraordinary plastic Imipolex G, the group are aloof: they don’t seek revenge on the Germans who exploited them, nor do they harm the main American character Tyrone Slothrop when they briefly capture him. They are just ghosts wandering the emptied WWII battlefields. The rocket is their church and their salvation.

Beneath this disturbing fiction there are nuggets of historical detail. It’s very likely that Pynchon was inspired by 1971 book Namibia Under German Rule by Helmut Bley, which described Herero units wearing Prussian military uniform even as their race was almost wiped out by the same badge. These Offiziersburschen und Polizeidiener (Officers’ Boys and Police Footmen) rode and drilled with Schutztruppe (Rifle Troops) as servants and wore their masters’ uniform, including the ‘wideawake hat’ and other regalia. After the genocide, German troops defined the 650 or so Herero who still had ‘regular jobs with the armed forces’ in much more servile terms, but it is notable that they still wore the hats, uniforms, and regalia of the occupiers who had carried out von Trotha’s extermination order against their own people.

The image of the oppressed wearing the suit of their oppressors is key to Gravity’s Rainbow, quite literally in this case, but also figuratively in the case of Slothrop, who was manipulated through Pavlovian conditioning by the British secret service to achieve a bizarre fatalistic connection with the rocket. He ultimately realises he is the hunted and not the hunter, and like the Hereros is unable to exercise genuine independent will outside what is described in the novel as simply ‘Them’: the powers that be.

The Konzentrationslager Legacy

The slaughter of hundreds of thousands of people brought the ‘concentration camp’ into the German lexicon, invented by the British in the Boer War four years earlier. Bits and pieces of the logistics involved were echoed during the Holocaust: the extensive use of cattle vehicles to transport victims, strictly contained disease outbreaks, and ambiguous batch death certificates.

For the Ugandan academic Mahmood Mamdani the holocaust of the Führer was linked to the holocaust of the Kaiser by a common ideology of Social Darwinist cleansing. ‘I destroy the African tribes with streams of blood. Only following this cleansing can something new emerge, which will remain’, General Trotha wrote.

This was the protohistory of ‘scientific’ and calculated racism; Franz Ritter von Epp returned to slaughter Jews and Roma in Bavaria the same way he had learned in the Crown Colony. As late stage colonialism begat fascism, what began in Windhoek finally settled in Warsaw.


About Author

Ruairi Wood

English Dirtbag. Read the Bread Book, Google Murray Bookchin.